Scalia: Not the Stuff of Which Martyrs Are Made
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We’re in the midst of Thomas More feasts (June 22 in the Roman Church, July 6 in the Church of England, and July 9 on the old calendar), and a couple things are worth calling to mind.
First, (the confusingly named) Elizabeth Scalia’s piece today at First Things, “Antonin Scalia, Bad Person.” It’s short, sweet, and to the point—so there’s no excuse not to read it. Nevertheless, I’ll give one by distilling it even further: the gist of the article is that Justice Scalia’s dissent in Windsor (a.k.a. DOMA) is quintessentially humanist—the same sort of humanism that pervaded the thought and life (and death) of Thomas More. Justice Scalia, in vindicating the right of Americans to defend traditional marriage, argues that a court ruling which would declare such a view null and void is, more or less, the epitome of tyranny. (This is not insignificant, since Scalia, like More, is a Catholic jurist who finds himself operating alongside a reign of irrational moral absolutes, and who wears funny hats.)
The second item—another First Things article, strangely enough—is a look at Thomas More qua Speaker of the House of Commons. (Disregard who wrote it, that’s not important.) In particular, the article includes a short statement issued by More twelve years before his martyrdom, which more than ever merits careful reflection:
Most gracious Sovereign [says Sir Thomas to King Henry VIII], considering that in your High Court of Parliament is nothing intreated but matter of weight and importance concerning your realm and your own royal estate, it could not fail to let and put to silence from the giving of their advice and counsel many of your discreet Commons, to the great hindrance of the common affairs, except that every of your Commons were utterly discharged of all doubt and fear how any thing that it should happen them to speak should happen of your Highness to be taken… It may therefore like your most abundant Grace, our most benign and godly King, to give to all your Commons here assembled your most gracious licence and pardon, freely, without doubt of your dreadful displeasure, every man to discharge his conscience, and boldly in everything incident among us to declare his advice.
The piece concludes by stating that it was More’s commitment to such “discharge” of conscience that made his protection of conscience, in the end, so monumental. According to Elizabeth Scalia, the homonymous judge’s “passionate opinions flow from his pen like lava, seemingly indiscriminate, but nevertheless finding every curve and crevice of what lies before them.” It’s hard to image, though, that in his rebuke, Justice Scalia sought anything apart from “the profit of [the] realm and honour of [its authority].”
Still, we know how such stories end. Thomas More, famously, was “not the stuff of which martyrs are made.” Neither, I suspect, is Scalia. But that might not make a difference.